The COVID pandemic and the new spiral of sovereigntism
Amidst an ongoing global health crisis, the globalised world has been shattered and replaced by a bleak archipelago of aggressive micro-sovereignties that would befit a far-right dystopia.
Note: a version of this piece has been published by OpenDemocracy.
In so many ways 2020 felt like a brutal reality check. So much of what had been taken for granted as part of the ‘third’ era of globalisation came to a violent halt: inter- and trans-national mobilities froze by decree or stumbled on reinvigorated hard sovereign borders; a retreat into protectionism, already evident as a trend for some time, was further legitimised in the name of existential threat; national shortages of medical equipment and then vaccines add fuel to a language of national self-sufficiency and a spirit of aggressive competition with other states for control of resources. If at the turn of the 21st century the world seemed decidedly ‘flatter’ and compressed, after a year of closed borders, silent airports, ‘stay at home’ injunctions, and all sorts of newly normalised barriers, it has become a vast and forbidding archipelago of fiercely competing micro-sovereignties pulling further and further apart from each other.
Once again globalisation has proved skin-deep. Not unlike what happened with its more recent ‘waves’ in the 19th and 20th centuries, it was the willingness of states to cooperate that drove globalisation; and it was the narrow-minded retreat to a zero-sum, fiercely antagonistic conception of sovereignty that marked its downfall. The last five years provided ample evidence that the time when globalisation was regarded as the inviolable totem of a brave new world could come to an abrupt end. The unprecedented level of sophistication of networks and processes achieved in the last half century, as well as the attitudinal changes that they produced over time across the globe, were not guarantee against reversal.
A health emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic may indeed prove to be a temporary blip, followed by the fabled re-opening of the world and a ‘back-to-normal’ expectation. However the changes that have occurred in the last year, however seemingly authorised as temporary exceptions in the name of an existential threat, are likely to bequeath long-lasting legacies. The spatial marking of sovereignties has been extended in ways that go well beyond abstract notions of governmentality like the standard infrastructure of border controls; it is now also defined by a depressingly long register of physical border walls, of which the so-called ‘Trump wall’ on the US-Mexico border has been the most notorious recent example. Meanwhile, just as the power of the nation-state to reassert unilaterally its sovereignty seems to be on a dangerous upward trajectory, micro-sovereignties have thrived on the sub-national level. Nearly all states have become de facto more federalised in the management of the pandemic — sometimes to the point of an unworkable patchwork of competing jurisdictions and conflicting rules as has been the case in the UK or in the USA. Now a growing number of long-standing but recently bolstered sub-national identities have staked a much stronger claim to separatism. Postcode, municipal, regional, and other previously invisible boundaries have not only fractured the supposedly globalised world but have also fostered inward-looking mentalities that may be part of the ‘new normal’.
So here we are, on the cusp of multiple past and future worlds but practically suspended in a Gramscian interregnum, not knowing exactly where we wish to go, ravaged by conflicting legacies and impulses. Vaccines are the product of transnational mobilities — of ideas and expertise, of people, in the end of the vials themselves — but have gradually turned into a coveted national (or, sadly, even supranational, as in the case of the European Commission, where the otherwise laudable overcoming of national(ist) fault lines is currently mutating into an assertive form of pan-European sovereigntism) resource in the gift of fiercely territorialised sovereign political power centres and at the mercy of pusillanimous protectionism. Virus mutations too have been granted citizenship and mapped onto tropes of foreign invasions that need to be stopped at the bastions of the hallowed sovereign national fort, against the advice of the World Health Organisation or the scientists.
One could be forgiven for thinking flippantly that the public discourse generated in the past twelve months by otherwise officially liberal, often progressive governments and mainstream political parties befits a world seized by the political entrepreneurs of the radical populist right. In many European countries the spread of the disease has often been blamed on immigrants and the alleged tolerance of multiculturalism. After all it was a US president in office who stigmatised an entire country and its people for the spread of the virus. The taboo-breaking language used in the past by national populist politicians, parties, and media against people and communities from other religions, races or regions of the world who were either living in or wishing to enter the national fortress has become almost banal when it comes to COVID. The pandemic has only added fuel to a web of existing racist stereotypes that remain hard-coded into mainstream society, offering them new spaces to circulate without the taboo stigma and thus to become normalised. But the COVID emergency also de facto legitimised the revival of ‘walls of the mind’ within sovereign states themselves. Regional political elites have invoked technicalities of administrative jurisdiction and health management to renew demands for sub-national independence or autonomy — and, in so doing, whip up public opinion in this direction.
Is there a way back from all this paroxysm of inward-looking anxiety in the supposed ‘new normal’ that will come once the pandemic hopefully comes under global control? Perhaps. COVID-19 however has not been a mere minor and easily forgettable bump along the road; instead it has disrupted and dislocated so much of ‘normality’ for a far more protracted period than anyone had wished for back in 2020. The longer it dominates life and creates all sorts of dangerous ‘others’ at the proverbial gates, the more it will deepen the fortress mentality in mainstream society. If the most recent wave of globalisation is to come under scrutiny and much-needed recalibration after decades of unfettered growth and unsustainable excess, then it would be a devastating lapse to see it replaced by a web of defensive, exclusive, paranoid micro-sovereigntisms, effectively reverberating the language of the radical right.
Aristotle Kallis, Keele University